By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — This one hurt. There have been quite a few sob stories in Irish rugby during this decade, but last Saturday’s 10-9 loss to France in the opening game of the Five Nations championship at Lansdowne Road was the proverbial sickener.
Aggressive, committed and highly organized, Ireland outplayed the French, who are chasing a third successive Grand Slam, for the much of what was a sapping, physical contest when David Humphreys was faced with an injury-time penalty to win the game.
It would have been Ireland’s first victory over the French since 1983, it would have been the perfect start to the championship, the hush around Lansdowne Road was eerie. When Humphreys’s kick drifted right and wide of the posts, you could almost reach out and feel the frustration.
Instead of a badly needed victory, it was a seventh successive defeat in major test matches under coach Warren Gatland. Just a minute before Humphreys’s agonizing miss, Thomas Castaignede had kicked the decisive points for France. The week before, Ireland’s out-half had starred for Ulster in their glorious European Cup victory, now he hung his head in despair as a great chance slipped away.
"I think I know now what a long time seven days is in sport. The conditions weren’t great, but I still should have got that kick," Humphreys said. "It was so disappointing to play so well and then lose that way."
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Even in there was no tangible reward, there were plenty of positive aspects from the game for Gatland and his players. The forwards were outstanding, with Dion O’Cuinneagain and Eric Miller running brilliantly in the loose and Keith Wood was at his usual belligerent best.
The miserable conditions might not have suited the French, who have now won nine Five Nations games in a row. Still, the Irish put them under intense pressure. The defense behind the scrum was first rate with Rob Henderson, an early replacement for the injured Jonathan Bell, making a big impression and both Conor O’Shea and Kevin Maggs were also impressive.
Critically, though Ireland were unable to press home their first-half territorial advantage. A lead of 6-0 was simply not enough and a couple of try-scoring chances went astray and Humphreys missed three important penalty chances.
The out-half’s failure with the boot reopened the debate over whether Eric Elwood should have been selected in the first place. After all, Elwood is a recognized top-of-the-range place kicker, while Humphreys hasn’t had any kicking responsibility for Ulster all season long.
His kicking apart, Humphreys had a good game, but it has been proven time and time again that teams without a quality placekicker rarely win matches.
The Ireland management now has a major decision to make. It is likely that Humphreys will stay on as out-half, but if that happens Niall Woods should be brought in on the left wing in place of Girvan Dempsey.
Woods has been having a brilliant season with London Irish and he has been scoring tries and kicking goals. His selection would also take a lot of pressure off Humphreys.
Ireland play Wales, who lost 33-22 to Scotland in their opener at London’s Wembley two Saturday’s ago.
"Our overall level of performance is improving," said the team manager, Donal Lenihan. "In many ways we were better than the French. It was a massive disappointment, but we’re on the right track."
No one’s denying that, but this a victory that got away and Ireland mightn’t get a second chance in this competition.